Promising Young Woman trailblazed its way through awards season, winning Best Original Screenplay and picking up nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the Academy Awards. While her fellow nominees were all three or more feature films into their careers, this marks Emerald Fennell’s feature film directorial debut. As writer, director and co-producer she’s completely invested in Promising Young Woman, a title and understatement in the wake of the film’s success. Also surprising is that Margot Robbie is signed on as a producer, an A-list star who could have played Cassie if it weren’t for the risk of overwhelming the indie spirit of this dark comedy revenge thriller. Besides the weird parallels with Harley Quinn, Robbie makes way for Carey Mulligan as Cassie, who owns and immerses herself in the role.
It’s a healthy reminder of just how good Mulligan is… after impressing with a purposefully subdued turn in The Dig opposite Ralph Fiennes. Often taking on quieter, more nuanced roles, Mulligan sinks into her characters so much that you often lose perspective on her actual performance. Promising Young Woman gives her a chance to really flaunt her range, essentially playing a few characters in her vigilante takedown. Going blonde, she wields the sex appeal of her character as a siren, luring men into compromising situations after they prey on her seemingly vulnerable state.
Playing Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old medical school drop out, she finds herself moonlighting as a vigilante by night. Enduring her coffee shop day job and living with her parents, Cassie commits her life to avenging the death of her best friend who was a rape victim. When she’s reconnected to her friend’s past and a life-altering incident at medical school, Cassie’s thirst for revenge is reignited, leading her to key figures who dismissed her friend’s accusations.
Roll Red Roll documented a small town’s attempt to diffuse serious rape allegations and an associated investigation when it involved football teamsters. While set in a football team instead of at a medical school, this could have been the prequel to Promising Young Woman. An eerie and timely documentary, Roll Red Roll explores double standards when it comes to protecting offenders and downplaying victims in the “fog” of sexual violence. Being under the influence, taking advantage of the vulnerable and even celebrating these conquests, Promising Young Woman expands on a rape scenario years after the dust has settled. A boy has grown into a man, yet the rot of his actions are about to catch up with him thanks to a revenge-fueled and brokenhearted best friend forever.
“…and your point is?”
Emerald Fennell has unleashed a timely film, picking up on today’s attempt to deconstruct long held beliefs, toxic behaviour and twisted truths. Promising Young Woman isn’t just a thriller about exacting revenge and seeking justice, it’s a wake up call to the hapless bystanders. While not as explicit, inaction is essentially aiding and abetting perpetrators. Promising Young Woman’s form of street justice finds Cassie trying to strike fear into the hearts of casual sex offenders, but it’s the not-so-subversive message that makes it so powerful.
It’s a strange brew of quirky comedy, dark comedy, charming romance and thriller. The offbeat fun of Cassie taking trolling toxic men to the next level is juxtaposed with her unenthusiastic day job and wallflower ambitions. The dark comedy comes through strongly in her femme fatale escapades as she tries to stay ahead of her double life. The lighthearted romance sees Cassie trying to restore her hope in men while the revenge thriller element goes dark in the vein of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Taking kitsch décor design elements to accentuate her parent’s stuck-in-time attitude and taste, the production design is alive with meaning, taking a few pages from Stanley Kubrick even. The soundtrack is just as affected, eclectic enough to warrant a throwback to Juice Newton. Adopting cosplay in Cassie’s many forms and sub-characters, this modest film completely outperforms itself. Supported by the likes of Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown and Connie Britton, Promising Young Woman’s a stellar indie film that also gives comedian-turned-actor Bo Burnham space to shine.
Fennell isn’t afraid to make bold choices, which pay off more often than not. It’s this fearless spirit that drives the multi-genre thriller, maintaining its swagger without losing sight of entertainment value. Wickedly funny, subversive and full of twists, Promising Young Woman is everything it wants to be, sending a strong message without beating you over the head. It’s exciting to see what Fennell dreams up next and bolstered by Mulligan in full flight, it wouldn’t be surprising if the duo collaborated on a few more projects together.
The bottom line: Bold